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Taking a Stand (Chukkat)

water-flowing-over-rocksNear the center of this week’s parshah, bnei Yisrael famously complain over a lack of available drinking water (Num. 20:1-13). Many commentators have discussed the remarkable similarities between this water crisis and an earlier water crisis recorded in sefer Shemot (Exod. 17:1-7). In both incidents, the nation lacks water; in both, they protest that man and beast alike will shortly die of thirst; in both, they question Moshe’s leadership and they regret their decision to leave Egypt; in both, Hashem commands Moshe to draw forth water from a rock, and to take his staff along with him. Moreover, the first crisis occurs when the people arrive at “the wilderness of Sin” [מדבר סין], which is later renamed “Testing and Strife” [מסה ומריבה, i.e. Massa U-Merivah], while the second occurs when the people depart from “the wilderness of Zin” [מדבר צין], which is later renamed “The Waters of Strife” [מי מריבה, i.e. Mei Merivah]. The parallels continue, and they are well documented.

What has not been noted, however, is the similarly compelling set of connections tying together the aftermaths of these two water crises. To that end, consider the following episodes:  

  1. Moshe and the King of Edom (post-Mei Merivah):

Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “So says your brother, Israel, ‘You have known of all the hardship that has found us. Our fathers went down to Egypt, and we sojourned in Egypt for a long time. And the Egyptians mistreated us and our forefathers. We cried out to Hashem and He heard our voice. He sent an angel, and he took us out of Egypt, and now we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your border. Please let us pass through your land; we will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink well water. We will walk along the king’s road, and we will turn neither to the right nor to the left until we have passed through your territory.'” Edom replied to him, “You shall not pass through me, lest I go out and greet you with the sword!” The children of Israel said to him, “We will keep to the highway, and if we drink your water, either I or my cattle, we will pay its price. It is really nothing; I will pass through on foot.” But he said, “You shall not pass through!” and Edom went out to greet them with a vast force and with a strong hand. Edom refused to allow Israel to cross through his territory; so Israel turned away from him (Num. 20:14-21).

  1. Moshe and the Priest of Midian (post-Massa U-Merivah):[i]

Now Moshe’s father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moshe and for Israel, His people that Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt. So Moshe’s father in law, Jethro, took Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons, one of whom was named Gershom, because he [Moshe] said, “I was a stranger in a foreign land,” and one who was named Eliezer, because [Moshe said,] “The God of my father came to my aid and rescued me from Pharaoh’s sword.” Now Moshe’s father in law, Jethro, and his [Moshe’] sons and his wife came to Moshe, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God. And he said to Moshe, “I, Jethro, your father in law, am coming to you, and [so is] your wife and her two sons with her.” So Moshe went out to greet Jethro, prostrated himself and kissed him, and they inquired into each other’s peace, and they entered the tent. Moshe told his father in law [about] all that Hashem had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians on account of Israel, [and about] all the hardships that had found them on the way, and [that] Hashem had saved them. Jethro was happy about all the good that Hashem had done for Israel, that He had rescued them from the hands of the Egyptians. [Thereupon,] Jethro said, “Blessed is Hashem, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the deities, due to that which they plotted against them [Israel].” Then Moshe’s father in law, Jethro, sacrificed burnt offering[s] and [peace] offerings to God, and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to dine with Moshe’s father in law before God (Exod. 18:1-12).

Though not typically chosen as candidates for comparison, these two episodes actually offer us much to compare—and also much to contrast:

  • Both feature a diplomatic exchange between Moshe and a leader of a foreign nation: the unnamed king of Edom, after Mei Merivah; Yitro, the priest of Midian, after Massa U-Merivah.
  • Both leaders exchange messengers with Moshe. However, whereas it is Moshe who reaches out to the king of Edom, Yitro is the one who makes first contact with Moshe.
  • Both leaders share a familial connection with Moshe. However, while it is Moshe who stresses to the king of Edom that Israel is Edom’s “brother,” Yitro is the one who emphasizes his relationship to Moshe, by declaring that he is arriving as his “father-in-law.”
  • Moshe tells the king of Edom of “all the hardship that has found us” [כל התלאה אשר מצאתנו], just as he tells Yitro of “all the hardship that had found them” [כל התלאה אשר מצאתם]. Nowhere else in the entire Torah do we find the unique word “hardship” [תלאה].
  • To both leaders, Moshe recalls the history of bnei Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt. These are the only two times in the entire Torah where Moshe shares this history with a foreign leader. However, Moshe struggles vainly to have the king of Edom acknowledge this history and the special relationship between Hashem and bnei Yisrael which it evidences; indeed, it is Moshe who must insist to the king of Edom that that “you have known” [אתה ידעת] all that has befallen us. By contrast, Yitro recognizes it of his own accord, declaring “Now I know” [עתה ידעתי]—on account of all that has befallen you—of Hashem’s unparalleled greatness.
  • Moshe wants bnei Yisrael to travel towards Edom, while Yitro is the one who makes the trek from Midian towards bnei Yisrael.
  • Moshe promises the king of Edom that bnei Yisrael will not eat any of his bread and will pay for any that goes missing. Yitro, by contrast, willingly breaks bread with Moshe and the leaders of bnei Yisrael, and even offers animals from his own flock as sacrifices to Hashem.
  • The king of Edom threatens Moshe that he will “go out and greet you” [אצא לקראתך] with the “sword,” and soon thereafter does in fact “go out and greet him” [ויצא לקראתו] with “a vast force and a strong hand.” By contrast, when Moshe “goes out to greet” [ויצא לקראת] Yitro, the two exchange “kisses” and wishes for “peace.”
  • Ultimately, the king of Edom refuses to welcome bnei Yisrael into his territory, and the episode ends when he turns them away. By contrast, Moshe draws to a close his rendezvous with Yitro by sending him away to his own land, apparently on amicable terms: “Moshe sent away his father in law, and he went off to his land” (Exod. 18:27).

While similar in several key respects, these episodes could in fact not have developed any more differently. Edom’s national ties to bnei Yisrael were stronger than Midian’s, and their leader had been actively solicited by Moshe, whereas Midian’s was not. Nevertheless, it was Midian’s leader who met with Moshe on favorable terms, while Edom’s rebuffed Moshe’s overtures and ultimately declared war. What an ironic discrepancy!

Perhaps this disparity could be explained through recourse to the disparate circumstances of the episodes themselves: Yitro’s meeting with Moshe was primarily a personal encounter between direct family members, whereas Moshe’s proposal to Edom was overtly political in nature and would have implicated the entire Edomite nation. Yet the literary links that bind together not only these two episodes, but also the broader background against which each of them unfolds, suggest that we should not satisfy ourselves with attributing their divergent conclusions exclusively to these internal, incidental distinctions. Context also matters here.

That context, in both cases, is a water crisis. In one of those crises—at Massa U-Merivah—Moshe obeys Hashem’s instructions perfectly and performs a series of miracles that restore faith in Hashem. In the other crisis, however—at Mei Merivah—he challenges Hashem and quarrels with bnei Yisrael:

Moshe and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice [ed. note: whereas Hashem had told him to speak to the rock], and an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank. Hashem said to Moshe and Aaron, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them” (Num. 20:10-12).

If at Massa U-Merivah, Moshe unifies his people and honors the word of Hashem, at Mei Merivah, he does just the opposite.[ii] Can it be a coincidence, then, that the foreign leader he deals with following the first crisis holds him, his people and his God in high admiration, while the second leader affords no esteem whatsoever? Can it be a coincidence, in other words, that kiddush Hashem (“sanctification of God’s name”) begets kiddush Hashem, and so too in reverse?[iii]  

The juxtaposition—indeed, it is a double-juxtaposition[iv]—suggests that, in fact, these outcomes are most deeply connected. Underlying their connection is a profound lesson for each of us: Others respect us only when we respect each other, and when we respect the values that make us who we are. This is true individually, and it is true collectively as well. In the final analysis, whether or not a priest of Midian or a king of Edom will stand with or against us has relatively little to do with our economic or political or social standing at any given point in history—or with the particular personalities involved in forging relations—or with the nature or the setting of our interaction—and far more to do with whether we as a people stand together, or apart; whether we ourselves stand up for our beliefs, or we do not. The choice is ours.

Shabbat shalom!


[i] It should be mentioned that this episode is separated from the water crisis at Massa U’Merivah by a brief war with Amalek (Exod. 17:8-16). More on this in note iii.

[ii] We point this out not, chas v’shalom, to judge Moshe for his errors—who of us could have fared better if placed in his circumstances?—but merely so that we can take from his experience lessons that can be scaled to our own spiritual standing.

[iii] To be sure, the kiddush Hashem Moshe effected at Massa U-Merivah was not without qualification: while he himself displayed faith in Hashem and patience with bnei Yisrael, there were of course pockets of the population who had vocally doubted “whether Hashem is in our midst or not” (Exod. 17:7). It was this segment of the population which proved vulnerable to the attack from Amalek followed immediately thereafter (see Deut. 25:18 and Rashi ad. loc.); but the bulk of bnei Yisrael, led by Moshe and the nation’s other leaders, remained steadfastly devoted to each other and to Hashem throughout this episode, so that they emerged victorious and cemented thereby the kiddush Hashem that provided the proximate catalyst for Yitro’s act of kiddush Hashem in the following chapter.    

[iv] In fact, this story may have a third part: later in parshat Chukat, Moshe once again confronts what appears to be a water crisis, though this time, he leads bnei Yisrael in singing praises to Hashem. Immediately thereafter, he engages in diplomatic exchange with Sichon, king of the Amorites, that is remarkably similar to his earlier exchange with the king of Edom. Like the king of Edom, Sichon rebuffs Moshe; this time, however, bnei Yisrael do not shrink away in rejection, but instead receive divine assistance to defend themselves against their attackers, and wind up incorporating the territory they conquer into the borders of the land of Israel (Num. 21:16-35). In this sense, Moshe found a way to rectify the chillul Hashem of Mei Merivah; indeed, the memory of his experience with Sichon would endure far longer than the memory of his experience with the king of Edom, and would emerge as one of the most frequently cited instances of kiddush Hashem in the history of bnei Yisrael (see Num. ch. 32; Deut. ch. 1-4, 29, 31; Josh. ch. 2, 9, 12-13; Jud. ch. 11; etc.)  Note: For more on the theme of Moshe’s “rectification” of Mei Merivah, please see last year’s article on parshat Ha’azinu, which argues that the song Moshe taught bnei Yisrael at the end of his life was aimed in part at reversing the effect of his striking the rock during the water crisis in this week’s parshah.


  1. Anonymous says:


  2. EWZS says:

    Extremely innovative and interesting, Alex. The idea that the preceding events shaped the encounters with Yitro and Edom is an awesome chiddush.

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